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Keep calm and carry on working (remotely)

March 20, 2020 By BlueAlly

How can employees stay motivated and productive while teleworking during the COVID-19 crisis?

As more of the world’s population than ever before take their equipment home to begin working remotely, the challenge is for team leaders to ensure their team members remain productive, motivated and engaged, and avoid the issues of isolation.

Last year, Buffer, a company specializing in social media content, surveyed 2,500 remote workers on the benefits and challenges associated with teleworking. The number one challenge, at 22%, was the ability to unplug after work. While appreciating this statistic, I suspect many office-bound workers who regularly take laptops home probably suffer from this issue as well. Number two on the list, at 19%, was loneliness, closely followed by collaboration and/or communication at 17%.

As a remote worker myself, I appreciate the challenges, and I am now sharing my home-office with my wife. She has only worked remotely on the odd occasion and is definitely a victim of being unable to unplug even in normal circumstances. Working on two separate campuses – sometimes being on both in the same day – means she is fully equipped as a mobile worker and her laptop does come home every night where round two of her work typically starts. In the current situation, though, monitors and keyboards have come home too!

I am now experiencing sharing my remote home office; apart from the very noisy keyboard that is being used behind me to thump out emails, it’s a highly interesting time. I am hearing the challenges of my wife’s other team members, one of whom is struggling with childcare, another not having connectivity and many others with the kinds of issues one might expect.

There is, however, a team spirit that I can hear, and a great example of this is that one of her colleague’s children has a birthday tomorrow; as we are in a lockdown zone with only essential travel permitted, the party has been called off. Good initiative and technology means there is a virtual singing of happy birthday being scheduled over the organization’s video conferencing system and all the children who would have attended are invited. It is acts like these that will keep the motivation and spirits of employees high, and high spirits should lead to greater productivity.

The normal solitude I experience can be challenging, and those of you who know me will attest that I sometimes disappear to the local library or coffee shop to work, just to enjoy other people being in the same location. Experience has given me strategies to deal with the challenges; unfortunately in this scenario though the library and coffee shop are closed. The other element that is challenging, and is compounded in my situation by time-zone differences: when you achieve something great, there is no colleague to turn to and share the moment with. Those of you who know me will read this and laugh as I sometimes call people for no reason other than to share something that’s important to me, already knowing that they are not really interested.

Creating the right environment for those who may be first-time remote workers is extremely important for the employees’ welfare and company productivity. I suggest having a strategy and I recommend you consider:

  • Expect people to be ready for work; showering and getting dressed helps people understand they are going to start work.
  • Where possible, encourage people to create an ad-hoc office space; try to sit at a table or desk in a regular chair. This also creates an environment where others in the house will respect that you’re working. Lounging on the sofa is for Netflix.
  • The normal working day schedule should be maintained where possible; if work normally starts between 8-10 AM and lunch is somewhere between 12-2 PM, then try to maintain this schedule. Routines are good.
  • My own experience, in normal circumstances, is that I take 30 minutes out at lunch time, where “out” means “out of the house”. I go to the store, get a coffee or walk around the block a few times. Under the current lockdown rules this is now a 30-minute walk to the beach, keeping social distance as mandated. Trust me, this will improve productivity in the afternoon.
  • Agree on a single communication platform outside of the normal email system … a platform that is less formal and provides a more casual communication style … for example, Slack, Zoom, Skype or one of the many other communications or chat platforms that are available.
  • Start the day with a team check-in, and take 15 minutes to communicate today’s agenda with the team to ensure they have the necessary information and resources to achieve the expected results. This also has the benefit of giving everyone a schedule of when to start their day.
  • Keep the communication flowing over the agreed platform, watch for colleagues not participating and reach out to them.
  • Don’t micromanage, focus on the bigger picture of the end result, and avoid babysitting or being overbearing. As people adapt to the new working arrangement, productivity may suffer – but with the right leadership and guidance, the reality is that productivity will most likely increase due to fewer distractions.
  • If you have some staff who are experienced remote workers, use their knowledge as mentors for those who find the environment challenging.
  • Create optional virtual team lunches so that the social interaction discussions that happen in the office can continue as normal.
  • When the day’s goal is achieved, sound the bell, encourage people to down tools and spend time with family or friends, or get some exercise (lockdown rules allowing).

As an experienced remote worker, if asked for the most important recommendation, it would be to have a routine and continually (maybe even over-) communicate with colleagues. The task at the top of my own list is to acquire a less noisy keyboard for my wife!